We all know what’s Romania’s problem. The people know it, the elites know it, the most accomplished intellectuals and the best (foreign) educated know it, foreigners know it — hell, the whole world knows it. Except that we don’t know. We think it’s corruption — but it isn’t.

I admit, blaming it on corruption does make a lot of sense. I mean, there are solid arguments. First, there’s the science that proves it: there’s a clear correlation between high level of corruption and high levels of poverty (or low levels of social and economic development). Global data speaks for itself on this one; no question. So that’s the bird’s eye view.

Second, there are myriad ways — all documented, recorded, measured — in which corruption clearly reduces (in RO’s case, obliterates) public sector efficiency. In other words, things don’t work, or barely work, because of corruption and graft. You can’t get results, can’t get things done, because of corruption. That project in some remote village? Not implemented properly because of corruption. Want to open up a business and need city council approvals etc? Nope, corruption. Social care services in some town are crap? Yes, because 80% of the funds have been siphoned off. Want to fix that? Can’t — you need to get past all those corrupt people in the honey-chain (I’ll trademark that term!).

Third, corruption means loss of public money through waste (itself largely because of corruption as per the point above) or outright theft, embezzlement, fraud, you name it. Either way, that money’s not being spent to the public benefit, and the country as a whole is all the poorer for it. So this is a related, but distinct issue from the systemic dysfunctions mentioned above.

Fourth, there’s the so-called ‘culture of corruption’, ubiquitous and deeply ingrained (some say) in Romanians’ minds. And for a good reason, because it would appear that in order to ‘get along’ you’ve got to ‘play along’, so people have gotten used to this and accept it as part of ‘life’. Some say it’s this ‘culture of corruption’ that underpins everything else — the reason why people (including, as Harvey hears, the prime minister himself) cheat at school, dodge the taxman, don’t care about how well they do their job (because career progress is also entwined with corruption) etc etc. And there may be many other ways and reasons why corruption is seen as really the one big problem in RO. Legions of people have written about this better than Harvey ever can have time to.

But I don’t buy this story a single bit. It’s not corruption that’s the big ‘un. It is absolutely crippling for the country, but it’s not the most critical problem. If corruption was it, then we should expect that once we ‘solve’ this problem (and by the way no one has ever actually explained what ‘solving’ it means, how victory would look like in this anti-corruption crusade), everything will be fine, more or less — and RO will be free to soar to the top of global development rankings and so on. Really?


So here’s what Harvey thinks is the real problem in this country: incompetence. People who run things, who are in charge, are simply incompetent (and often plain stupid). Many (most!) are also corrupt of course, but the far bigger problem is that they’re incompetent and they just don’t know what they’re doing or supposed to do. You already know I’m right. I mean just walk into any public office, deal with any part of the sprawling RO ‘public administration’, and the incompetence (and often stupidity) you’ll see there will take you aback.

We can talk about why there’s so much incompetence — and people will always be quick to say that you’ve got incompetence everywhere because of corruption everywhere. Smart people don’t get promoted on merit, so all those stupid (but corrupt) people make it to the top, and voilà, that’s how you end up with a bunch of idiots running everything. I’m not saying there’s not a lot of that going on; there is (and it’s one of the reasons pentru care m-am cărat si eu). But to explain such widespread incompetence — at virtually every level of government and administration from the very top to the very bottom — as simply the result of corrupt promotion and appointment to public office, is ridiculous. This would mean that there is, somewhere, a parallel society, or at least a whole ‘army’ of competent, well-intentioned, and incorruptible people, ready to step in if only it was all done on merit. This is a fantasy.

The reality is that Romania suffers, first and foremost, from incompetence. And let’s get the terms right here, to avoid any misunderstanding. Incompetent, in my book, doesn’t mean you’re not intelligent or not educated enough. And ‘stupid’ doesn’t mean ‘prost‘ in the Romanian sense, although that’s the immediate translation. ‘Prost’ and ‘prostie’ — a notion which is a huge millstone around RO’s neck, by the way — are much more offensive and disparaging than what ‘stupid’ actually is taken to mean in English. Intelligent people can often say or do stupid things, for example. Anyway, just wanted to point out the nuance there.

Coming back to ‘incompetence’, by that I really mean professional incompetence — being bad at your job. You can be bad at it because you don’t have enough training, so you actually don’t know how to do it; or you can be bad at it because you’re taking the wrong decisions, missing things, misinterpreting things — which can be because you have a bias, or don’t have enough experience, or you’re actually a bit dim (hey, it happens!), or whatever; and finally, you can be bad at it because you’re thinking about it in the wrong way and you’ve got the wrong attitude. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but I guess it’s a fair start. You can already see how much of ‘being incompetent’ doesn’t have anything to do with being ‘prost’ in the good-old Romanian sense.

So when I’m saying Romania’s great problem is incompetence, because it is so pervasive, I’m not saying this is a hopeless nation of idiots. (Which is probably why many people are reluctant to make this argument – for fear of entering the minefield of RO self-esteem; it’s easier to blame it on ‘corruption’, especially when you cast it as some alien affliction that’s got nothing to do with us.) And I’m not saying incompetence is a direct and product of a failing educational system (another popular theory), which itself is in the toilet because of corruption etc — you know how this circle spins. I mean, better formal education would be nice, please, but it doesn’t take geniuses to run a country properly. As many experts will tell you, it’s actually not that complicated.

The hard part is getting the thinking and the attitude right. Having a vision underpinning what’s going on in the entire system, from top to bottom. Having a clear set of values and a powerful, positive, self-confident ethos pervading every level of public administration. Well, that’s the ideal, but even a fraction of that would get RO going. And you know what’s the really nice thing about it? It’s easy. All it takes is the right signals from the top — because RO is still such a traditional, hierarchical society where everybody takes its cue from ‘the boss’. Hear that, Mr President?

So, it’s not the corruption, my friends. It’s incompetence. You can cry about corruption all you want, revolt, protest etc. It’s just howling at the moon. Because: (1) It won’t work; there will always be corruption in Romania, you cannot ‘defeat’ it; (2) even if you reduce or (miraculously) severely limit/eliminate it, you’ll see that things still don’t work — because people will still be incompetent, albeit more honest (presumably).

Don’t get me wrong: I’m all FOR fighting corruption. I’m living in a corruption-free country (by comparison, I mean!), and it’s damn nice. I want that for RO as well. Go after the corrupt — off with their heads! 🙂 But just remember: that won’t make Romania a more successful country. For that, you need competence, and for that, a new vision, a new spirit.

In other words, you need NEWPOLITICS. 😀

And I need a drink.